I love writers who get me thinking – whose words promote discussion and exchange of ideas. I often have that reaction to Jonathan’s writing, and his thoughts on the “Billy Graham Rule” (and the thoughts in the post he referenced) definitely stirred a lot of ideas in me, reflecting both on Scripture and on how this works out in practice – especially as a single woman in ministry.
“All things are permissible, but not everything is beneficial.” (1 Corinthians 6:12, 10:29)
This is a great guideline for Christian behaviour. Just because I have the freedom to do anything does not mean I should use that freedom to sin, or cause others to sin. In regard to gender separation, some people would argue that the BGR (Billy Graham Rule) is a small sacrifice in order to protect a greater good. Sure, I could have lunch with my opposite-gender coworker, but it’s a simple thing to not do, in order to protect my reputation/purity/spouse/
We desperately need this full expression in the church. Too often in the church women don’t advance or have their voices heard because no one in power will talk to/meet with/befriend them – for the sake of propriety. If we limit cross-gender working relationships, our churches will lack the insight single women have to give. As a single woman in ministry I met one-on-one with pastors and bosses and coworkers – most of whom were men, and often married. If my male coworkers had time with the pastor we all worked under but I didn’t, that would have spoken volumes about my value/worth as an employee – or my relative lack of it.
It is possible to do this well, with integrity, without restricting the access and influence of women. Our meetings weren’t secret. We usually met in public (lots of cafes!) during business hours – part of the work day. In most cases I knew their wives well and we socialised together outside work. When single coworkers married I usually got to know their wives and they became part of my social circle. While I had less time with the pastors, given that they did not have an intimate mentoring role in my life (though often their wives did invest in me more deeply), I still felt very valued and heard, and one-on-one time was an important part of that.
“Reject all appearance of evil.” (I Thessalonians 5:22)
A big reason given for BGR type restrictions is to “avoid the appearance of evil” as a Biblical command – but that’s not what the Bible says. 1 Thessalonians 5:22 says to reject all kinds of evil – “appearance” was a mistranslation which has been corrected. But even if we accept the “appearance of evil” translation, what is it about cross-gender friendship that we think looks evil? What is wrong about a man and woman having a conversation, or a meal? If I lack the ability to recognise innocent (and beneficial!) friendship, the problem is in my own mind and heart.
Many times Christian friends have told me sincerely that a man and woman cannot be close friends without at least one of them developing “feelings” for the other. That isn’t true in my experience, certainly not as a blanket rule. Sure, there is a place for wisdom – and Jonathan’s call to honesty is crucial – but there is nothing inherently evil about a cross-gender friendship! A man and woman talking together are not on the precipice of potential sin. And where does this leave our same-sex-attracted brothers and sisters? This seems to tell them they can’t have friendship at all – not just no romantic attachment, no family life in their future, but no close friends. What a horrible, isolating message. We are built for intimacy – and when we reduce intimacy to sex, we all lose.
I realise that concern with “appearance” is often connected to protection from false accusation – if everyone knows I never spend time with someone of the opposite gender, they won’t believe a false rumor should it crop up. I actually went through a period of extreme caution around any one-on-one time with men, in response to a specific “threat” – a former leader in the ministry spreading slander alleging impropriety among the remaining leadership. In this case there was a clear “danger” of false accusation and guarding against that protected a vulnerable ministry. I relaxed my extreme precautions when the threat was over. The problem with this as an all-the-time precaution is it does nothing to address issues of mind and heart – it only addresses how others see me. There is a dangerous sense of safety in being a “whitewashed tomb” – but if my heart is clean and honesty keeps me accountable, there is no need for legalistic rules that don’t fix anything.
Strict BGR restrictions can actually fan the flames of heart issues. If I buy into the appearance-of-evil thing, that it is somehow potentially sinful for a man and woman to spend time together, I will look at any interaction with suspicion. It may stroke my ego – that this person has something else on their mind when they look at/talk to/think about me. It may stoke my paranoia – that this person may be dangerous to me, may want something from me. It may stir gossip – that the two people I see talking must be doing something more in private. In each case, it makes me feel wary of cross-gender friendship – I can’t trust people, as they may be snares, predators, or deceitful. Instead of encouraging healthy relationships within the church, such separation and legalism encourages suspicion and gossip.
“A perverse person stirs up conflict, and a gossip separates close friends.” (Proverbs 16:28)
Sometimes we as the church just need to calm down – enjoy healthy friendships and be family to one another without making a fuss about it. As a single woman I have become annoyed on multiple occasions at assumptions made (and gossip spread) by and among church people. If a man and woman are seen having coffee, suddenly people are talking about them and whispering that they’re an item. We can’t see two people together without making huge leaps, big assumptions. Why is that? Why do we assume that if a man and a woman are talking, there is something “going on”? Can’t two people having lunch be, you know, eating? Yes, we all know of situations in which there was something nefarious going on, but the problem wasn’t in public – it was in private.
One issue I have with this sort of gossip is that it can push what should be a healthy friendship underground – if meeting publicly occasions gossip, is it better to meet privately? But as Jonathan pointed out, secrets are a bigger problem. And imagine what this does to dating – it’s impossible to get to know someone without the whole community being engaged, watching with bated breath, making it much more pressured. Community involvement in a relationship is good – but until there is commitment, let’s leave space for healthy and innocent friendship.
A note about abuse
I know many women who have a paranoia response as a reaction to past abuse – and far too many women have experienced abusive, misogynistic or exploitative treatment. This is an important reason that the church needs to demonstrate healthy relationships between men and women. We need to know – and show our children – what this looks like! I need to see what healthy interaction looks like (both in and out of romantic relationships) so I can identify unhealthy/abusive interaction when I see it. Radical separation of genders can leave people more open to abuse. We learn that certain people are/aren’t safe, rather than certain types of behaviour/interaction are improper. I think it can also play into the sense of entitlement connected with rape culture – all women are sexually “dangerous” and therefore any woman who gives me a little of her time must be “up for it.”
“Don’t cause another to stumble.” (Matt 5:29-30, Matt 18:6-9, Rom 14:20, 1 Cor 10:31-32)
This concept appears several times in the New Testament, in the words of Jesus and the writings of Paul. There are two concepts – to prevent oneself from stumbling, and to protect others from stumbling. To prevent myself from stumbling, Jesus advocates radically removing from myself that which is a problem. If I have trouble being in a room with another person without seeing opportunity for sin, the problem is not the other person – it is my own heart. I need heart surgery, not to remove the so-called “opportunity”. Removing the opportunity does nothing to address the problem.
Paul depicts believers with different convictions in fellowship with one another, neither group needing to be “corrected”. So while I disagree with the need for strict gender separation, and will happily engage in respectful discussion about this practice, I will also do my best to respect the consciences of those I interact with. If a couple has decided between them that they will not be alone with a member of the opposite gender, I will not seek to break their trust.
I think strict BGR behaviour stirs fear, lack of trust, and assumptions about the thoughts/motives of others. I also think it means we miss out on full and free fellowship – we lack what the other half of our community has to offer. There are great benefits to cross-gender friendships which we lose when we create legalistic rules as a huge buffer from actual sin. Instead, wouldn’t it be great if we all cultivated healthy friendships with each other? Let’s practice being family to one another, with innocence and purity, calling out the best in one another.
Tanya Crossman went to China to study for a year and ended up there 11 years, working for international churches and mentoring Third Culture Kids (her book about TCKs will be released later this year). She currently lives in Australia studying toward a Master of Divinity degree at SMBC. She enjoys stories, sunshine, Chinese food and Australian chocolate. | www.misunderstood-book.com | facebook: misunderstoodTCK | twitter: tanyaTCK